In a mere four years, China's booming economy has transformed the nation from net exporter of coal into a monster importer that can support multiple coal terminals proposed in the Pacific Northwest, industry analysts say.
Last year, China imported 182 million metric tons of coal, surpassing Japan as the world's largest coal importer. That amount is more than the capacity of four existing coal terminals in Alaska and British Columbia and five proposed Pacific Northwest terminals combined — including one proposal in Longview and two near Clatskanie.
China consumes about half of the coal burned annually worldwide, according to Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And analysts don't expect a drop off any time soon.
"Looking ... forward, I think people are underestimating the demand for energy that's going to be required for China," said Andy Roberts, a coal industry analyst for Annapolis, Md.-based Wood Mackenzie.
China is expected to shape the Pacific Northwest coal export market for years to come. While a few factors could dent its demand for U.S. coal, the reality is clear: China — and other Asian nations — will be hungry for coal and could easily consume the coal shipped through the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals export dock in Longview and two proposed terminals at Port Westward near Clatskanie.
The Chinese government announced earlier this month that it plans to cap its coal production and demand at 3.9 billion metric tons in 2015 to reduce fossil-fuel emissions and encourage renewable energy generation. That's 100 million tons more than the nation used last year, according to Bloomberg News. Analysts question, however, whether China will be able to power its economy under those standards.
"Coal is expected to be China's most dominant energy source in the foreseeable future," analyst Kevin Jianjun Tu wrote in a February paper about Chinese coal imports for the Carnegie Endowment.
The question is where the coal will come from. Over the past five years, about half of all Chinese coals imports were from Australia and Indonesia. Both countries are planning to ramp up production for China, Tu said.
However, Roberts said Indonesia needs to cap coal exports around 2020 because it will need more fuel for its own economy — at the same time Pacific Northwest coal export terminals are expected to go online, if approved by regulators.
"If you look to the future, the (Chinese) demand grows beyond the ability of Australia and Indonesia to supply the coal. The question is when that is going to happen," Roberts said, adding that coal demand is expected to increase in a smaller scale in South Korea and other Asian countries.
China is also expected to try to increase domestic production, but its internal rail system already struggles to bring coal from inland mines to the biggest power users on the coast, Tu said.
Also, Chinese coal production tends to lag behind spikes in consumption, which leaves Chinese utilities scrambling to buy additional supply overseas to prevent power outages, Tu said.
Environmentalists argue that the United States shouldn't rush to fuel China's economy simply because demand is there. Building more coal export terminals will lead to more burning of dirty fossil fuels for power instead of encouraging renewable energy development, environmentalists say.
"This is a terribly weak economic and jobs strategy for America — positioning us to play the role in the 21st-century economy that Latin America and Africa played in the 20th century — dependent economies that export resources," said KC Golden, policy director of Seattle-based Climate Solutions, a leading opponent of coal terminals statewide.
"Virtually all of the economic benefits in that transaction go to Asia, not to Americans. It's fine for Asia to have economic opportunities, but not at our expense, and certainly not at the cost of denying our kids a healthy future," Golden added.
Millennium officials say China is the biggest driver of demand for U.S. coal, but the company expects Japan and South Korea to be its biggest trading partners when its Longview terminal goes online.
A Korean delegation recently told Millennium officials that they are planning to increase their coal suppliers from beyond Indonesia, which is South Korea's major coal supplier, Millennium CEO Ken Miller said Tuesday.
"We are well-suited to meet that new demand that's coming in to Korea," Miller said, adding that Japan and China also are likely markets.
South Korea is expected to import 20 million tons of coal annually for the next two decades, according to Roberts.
Millennium has proposed building a $600 million export terminal at the former Reynolds Metals Co. site west of Longview. The company plans to expand to export 44 million tons annually in 2018 or 2019, which would mean 16 trains would be traveling through Longview daily to the terminal. County planners have proposed a $200 million plan to upgrade the area's rail system by 2016 or 2017.
A few miles upriver at Port Westward in Oregon, the Port of St. Helens is considering two separate coal terminal proposals. Texas-based Kinder Morgan is hoping to export 15 million tons of coal, according to the port. Pacific Transloading LLC, a subsidiary of Australia-based Ambre Energy, has proposed building a barge dock to unload 8 million tons of coal annually by the end of the decade.
Developer SSA Marine is seeking to export 48 million tons of coal at Cherry Point near Bellingham, which would be the North America's largest terminal. Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad is exploring building a small dock at the Port of Grays Harbor, and a yet-unnamed coal company has reportedly been in talks at the Port of Coos Bay in Oregon.